Adrian Berry: The real giant leap for mankind





[Adrian Berry was science correspondent of The Daily Telegraph from 1977 until 1996 and on stepping down from that position he became the paper's consulting editor (science).]

I was sitting in a press room the size of a football field at Nasa headquarters in Houston, Texas, watching a grainy black and white television screen that would show Neil Armstrong climbing down a ladder to step on to the Moon. The spaceship Eagle had landed, with its huge legs standing securely on the lunar surface, but apart from that absolutely nothing was happening.

All we could see on the screen was the empty, rugged lunar landscape in the Sea of Tranquillity – the Moon has some picturesque place names – with a horizon only half as distant as a horizon on Earth. For the 400 or so journalists in the room this was just a story. A big and wonderful story, it is true, but still just a story. No one present, as far as I know, had any idea that what was about to happen would change human society, creating an utterly different world. Had we read the technical parts of the voluminous press releases with which we had been issued we might have understood better than we did.

In the room, the excitement was terrific. But there was also great frustration. What were the astronauts doing? Why did they not emerge? Back in London, it was the early hours of the morning and deadlines were looming. People were getting frantic.

Anthony Michaelis, my Telegraph colleague, bit through his cigar, scattering ash and sparks all over our table. Somebody got up to use the bathroom, blocking our view of one of the television screens scattered around the room, all showing the same grainy picture. He was greeted with a howl of fury. “Sit down!” “Do you think we’re here just to see your ------- head!” The offender hurriedly returned to his seat.

A worried German reporter tapped me on the shoulder. “My editor is asking: how high above the Moon is the mother ship?” The mother ship, or “command module”, carrying astronaut Michael Collins, was in an orbit about 60 miles above the lunar surface. I told the German this, but it only made him unhappy. “About 60,” he said gloomily. “That’s no good. A German editor always wants orbits correct to at least two decimal places.”

At last, the picture changed. The door of Eagle had opened. A human foot, then a leg appeared on top of the ladder. It was Armstrong. Very slowly, he started to climb down backwards. The excitement in the press room was at fever pitch. Scarcely anyone breathed. Nobody had a clue what would happen. We were witnessing something unique in history. People had existed for more than 100,000 years; now for the first time one of us was walking on another world.

Someone fancifully suggested the claw of some alien monster was going to seize Armstrong. What actually happened may have lacked the drama of a science-fiction novel, yet it was in many ways just as exciting. Armstrong, his colleague Buzz Aldrin, and the 10 who followed them to the Moon on later missions, found many great treasures on the surface.

Priceless substances were present, forged in the depths of time – ilmenite, a rock with easily extractable oxygen for future Moon colonies; helium-3, rare on Earth but plentiful in the lunar dust, which could drive future spaceships and power nuclear power stations; and other valuable materials that can be used both to build lunar bases and improve life on Earth. Those are for the future.

For the present, however, the greatest treasure was not on the Moon at all but inside the spacecraft that flew there: the computers. In the minutes before landing, Eagle very nearly crashed into a lunar boulder. Its navigation system had failed because it was overloaded with data. I vividly remember someone, either at Mission Control or on television, crying out: “The computer’s in a dither!” This statement, which would not raise an eyebrow today, caused astonishment at the time. Which computer was in a dither?

Had we bothered to read those technical press releases, we would have known that Eagle was carrying its own on-board computer. It had to. The Moon is a quarter of a million miles away and it takes a radio signal two and a half seconds to get to Earth and back. For astronauts hurtling round the Moon at 20 feet per second, that was too long to rely on Houston for life-and-death calculations about height and speed.

The computer on board Eagle was one of the smallest ever made so it could fit into a ship whose living quarters were barely the size of a telephone booth. It had less than a thousandth of the processing power of a small electronic toy of today. But it was no mere calculator. It was a fully-fledged, programmable computer. It was the shape of things to come.

Until that moment, few had imagined that a computer could be so small. The earliest machines had been vast. In 1944, John von Neumann built a computer at Princeton called Eniac (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) to calculate missile trajectories. As one observer said: “It was worse than big, it was colossal, a veritable dinosaur of tubes and wiring. It had more than 100,000 parts, including 18,000 vacuum tubes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and 6,000 toggle switches. Every time it was turned on the lights dimmed all over town.”

This seemed to be the trend into the Sixties. Isaac Asimov, the sci-fi novelist, envisaged a future computer called Multivac, operated by vacuum tubes, that would be as big as a small country. Computers of the day filled entire rooms and were getting larger. Yet on board Eagle was an alternative future.

Within eight years of the first Moon landing, the earliest home computers began to appear. They were primitive machines that worked with tape cassettes and took 20 minutes to load a program or save data. As they started to arrive in offices, they provoked derision and contempt from computer-department staff who, like high priests, tended the huge devices of the pre-Moon era. “They’re just silly toys,” one such important person told me.

Their contempt soon turned to anger, and then to wonderment, as the realisation dawned that these silly toys could actually talk to each other, helped by the proliferation of software and the rapid increase of their speed, memory and storage capacity. The impetus to progress was provided once again by the Cold War – just as it had for the Moon mission, which was inspired by President Kennedy’s determination to compete with Soviet rocketry...


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